“No matter where I’d travelled, what city or village I’d landed in, Jed was either there in person or in spirit. Even in absentia, he was more present than most of the people around me. I couldn’t explain it, had rarely felt the need to – it would be like trying to rationalise the wind or the stars. But Jed was a fact I could no longer rely on. I was on my own now. And. It was becoming gallingly clear to me, I was not equipped.”
The Crying Place is the second novel by Australian poet, novelist and translator, Lia Hills. When Saul learns of his friend’s suicide, he sets off on a sort of pilgrimage: a trek into the Australian desert to find Nara, the woman Jed had described as “his country”, and to try to understand what had pushed his friend to this awful act.
His search is, by no means, straightforward, and the answers not necessarily those he seeks. Saul’s journey is as much an introspective one, exhuming from within memories of earlier times with Jed, and he has “a sense in that moment – just as I had that night by the river – that there was a gaping truth at the heart of his words. That somehow he had access to the future in a way I never would.” As Saul connects with the place and the people, wise words and good advice are offered: “All you gotta do is take a walk out there beyond the gap and you’ll come up with a hundred new types of divinity before sunset. But me, you know what I found? I found people, and some good ones at that. The kind who’ll let a man fumble for words when he sees something he doesn’t understand, and allow him his silence when saying nothing is about as much as he can manage” He remembers: “You were always the first to jump. Your feet would grip the edge of the rock, our breath held collectively as the clouds parted and the river swelled. You never looked – you knew the water was there, trusted it would catch you, no matter what – always leapt with your hands high above your head as if, in case of error, you might climb your way back up the sky”
Hills gives the reader a feast of beautiful and evocative descriptive prose: “The sky was so congested with stars that it was more a city than a place revealed by our distance from one, the stars so luminous that they fell into relief against the dark spaces between them” and “… a man with a wiry beard and deep creases in his face as chronometric as tree rings” and “He looked about eleven or twelve, on the threshold of adolescence, everything about him liminal: the scrawniness of his arms that ended in man-size hands; the angle he walked oriented to the sun, his shadow minimised” are examples.
This novel explores love and grief and also highlights the importance to indigenous people of connection to place, of rituals like sorry camp, of not saying the deceased’s name, of ancient myths and of being “on country”. While in the first instance, the meaning of indigenous words is explained, a glossary of Pitjantjatjara words would have been handy.
It’s a serious tale but not without humour. Anyone who had White forced on them in high school can relate to this: “I browsed through the fiction box… A clutch of Patrick Whites. I hadn’t read White since uni, where I’d treated him like eating bony fish – good for you but just too much work”. Within this gorgeous cover is contained a moving and thought-provoking tale that will stay with the reader long after the last page is turned